My dog Belle celebrates in her impressive red, white and blue coat.
Is there any club that I loathe quite as much as Carlton?**
How could it be otherwise? They've always been polar opposites to us, the battlers from the west. With their ruthless culture of success at all costs, they epitomise wealth, privilege, arrogance and hubris. They're closely associated with the Melbourne establishment, having been supported by (Sir) Robert Menzies, (Sir) Kenneth Luke and (Sir) Billie Sneddon. (Just how many 'Sirs' have barracked for the Dogs?). And Malcolm Fraser (of course, I'm talking about the days when Fraser was the diabolical fiend who engineered Gough's sacking, not the admirable refugee campaigner and erstwhile bleeding heart of recent years).
The Bluebaggers have won a glittering array of premiership cups (16. That's just plain greedy). Us, well, let's just saw we lost count after the first one.
They're the only club I can think of that have had two presidents face serious legal charges. They've had one billionaire president convicted of price fixing, and another president found guilty of trading while insolvent. The latter, of course, made the infamous insult towards our club and its 'tragic history', all the while presiding over arrogant salary cap rorting that eventually saw his name removed from the grandstand that he had ever so modestly named after himself.
Even this week, another Carlton ex-president, Ian Collins, lamented his 'mistake' in failing to fight in court the penalties imposed by the AFL for John Elliott's regime of systematic salary cap cheating. Why should they have copped their rightful whack? They're Carlton after all. That's why they can implement the Chris Judd 'Visy ambassadorship' and get away with the suspicious behaviour that led to the infamous 'Bryce Gibbs Cup'.
Then there's that wretched song. I've heard that 'da-ta-da-ta-da' bit echoing in my eardrums so many times whenever we made our humiliated exits from Princes Park, where they thrashed us time and again with the best talent that money could buy.
As immature teenagers with impressive western suburban chips on our shoulders, we used to stand near the Western Oval race parodying their song.
'We are the Bourgeois Blues. We are the running dogs of the capitalist bourgeoisie..'
(It's quite catchy - give it a go sometime).
The Bluebaggers never enjoyed coming across town to the Western Oval, of course. One halcyon day, in our home-ground's natural habitat of cold, mud and sleet, we just about kept them goal-less until a COMPLETELY undeserved free kick put them on the scoreboard with minutes to go. (As you may have observed, the Bulldog Tragician has a long memory for injustice).
In fact, the Bulldog Tragician bears the scars and the mindset of many years in the football wilderness and football pummellings. And so it transpired that despite my delight at last week's brave and impressive showing against the Swans, and my pathological hatred of the Blues, my inner narrative before the match against Carlton went like this:
The match against Sydney was a bruising, tough encounter. We were gutsy but it will have taken it out of our players. We're a young developing team, and it's hard to show that intensity of effort again where there's nothing to play for. The Despicable Ones still have a chance for finals. They've had an avalanche of publicity this week about under-achievement, and Marc Murphy has been especially under the blow torch with pleas for the umpires to notice those nasty taggers hanging off him. They'll come out with all guns blazing. Yes - this could be a thrashing, a step back, another hard lesson to learn.
I'd better leave a few minutes early. Otherwise I'll have to listen to that god-damn 'da-ta-da-ta-da', and no-one else knows the words to 'Bourgeois Blues' any more.
The usual stirring, optimistic stuff in other words.
The Dogs' inner sanctum, fortunately, does not have access to the cheerful musings of the Tragician. The players look switched on from the get-go (what is a get go, incidentally?). I'm amazed and impressed that we are sustaining the recent noticeable transformation in our style of play. Earlier this year I thought we were the slowest Bulldogs outfit I could remember seeing, industriously shovelling the ball out of packs to flat-footed team-mates, but now there's overlapping players with the courage to run hard alongside each other. In the first quarter we're right on top. We pepper the goals - well, actually, the problem is, we're peppering the point posts. We're only five points up (and I mean five points. The yips are running like the Ebola virus through the whole team).
Flawed Tragician thinking: We've had no reward for effort. This is so disheartening. Now the Despicable Ones will slot an easy couple and we'll drop our bundles.
The Dogs continue to spray their kicks in the second quarter, but we're going inside 50 so many times that the dam, surely, has to break. There's a massive roar of relief when Picken finally drills one after nine demoralising points in a row, but for all that, we're only two goals up. Gangly Tom Campbell, the most inspirational player to wear number 45 since Michael 'Fruitcake' Ford, appears to suffer an awful injury when he cannons recklessly into a goalpost. It's a dreadful, sickening moment, but the gallant Blues fans prefer to argue about whether it was a free kick while he lies prone on the ground. He gets up, though, and kicks the goal. We are really seeing some reward now!
'Scintillating' and 'Bulldogs' haven't been used in the same sentence for quite some time, but some passages of play are really inspired. Where footy once looked so hard, it suddenly looks effortless. Maybe our players too pause to savour the moment and become as shellshocked as the Tragician. They drop the intensity for a few regrettable, costly minutes. The Blues grab two goals in red time, leaving them dangerously within reach, only 15 points behind at half time despite being killed in every conceivable stat of the game.
Flawed Tragician thinking: I guess they'll run over the top of us now. Didn't I read that we were four goals up against them last year at half time, and lost by the same amount?
We still play some great footy in the third quarter, but the Blues are always within range. I feel as though our boys are starting to tire, and have lost some of the verve and panache. Things don't seem to be going our way, not least six free kicks to Marc Murphy (yes, umpires do read papers). Our Murphy, meanwhile, who's been typically carefree and cavalier, looks flustered as his previously unsighted opponent, Eddie Betts, suddenly seems to be Eddie Everywhere instead. The Blues draw level with only a minute or two to go. This is the danger period for young sides like ours, the so-called red zone in which Sydney snatched the match last week. Thirty seconds left on the clock.
Tragician: Hold on, boys. Just maintain possession. Don't make a mistake, that's all I ask.
The Bulldogs don't listen. Jordan Roughead launches a long attacking kick into our forward line, and Gia bobs up with a wonderful goal. We go into the last break eight points up.
Something's shifted in even the Tragician's thinking. I realise I don't want to be walking out of the stadium satisfied with a valiant effort. To be pleased that 'we pushed them all the way.' To be rueing those missed chances but complacent about our improvement.
These guys believe. Maybe I should too?
A few minutes into the last quarter, lion-hearted Will Minson makes a lumbering turn on the boundary line. He should, I think, just try and get boot to ball and swing it towards the goal mouth. Will instead executes an adventurous left foot pass across the ground to Jarrad Grant who's at centre half forward.
Tragician: Pure madness - if Grant fumbles, Carlton will be away.
Grant puts out his telescopic Inspector Gadget arms, marking it easily. Tom Young ('Coon Light'), sprints past him and kicks a marvellous goal.
Tragician: Will is a football genius!! GO DOGS!!
The Blues' supporters start to bronx-cheer their own players. The Dogs keep attacking, adding another couple, then the Real Coon puts us five goals up with an electrifying run and left-foot goal.
Tragician: The score clock has definitely malfunctioned. It's STILL the 18 minute mark and it was the 18 minute mark the last 20 times I looked. Wouldn't put it past the AFL to stuff it up. Then again, Ian Collins could be in charge of the time-clock, not satisfied with cheating Chris Grant out of a Brownlow. Five goals isn't much. We could still lose it from here and that will be so unfair as we've played so well and...
There's a wall of sound penetrating my monologue. It's a chant from our cheersquad. It sounds like the old one from the 70s: 'We're the mighty Bulldogs, the mighty mighty Bulldogs.'
I look at the clock. It's moved to 25 minutes. The Dogs are home.
We hang around to sing the song, again and again. No Blues supporters are in sight.
Our song is so much better anyway.
Home to savour the victory on the replay, to bask in the realisation that the Dogs wanted it so much more, were so much hungrier, and would never have let this one slip. (I knew that all along, of course). I marvel that a few short weeks ago, it was excruciating agony for us to compile five or six goals a game, and here we are slotting 16 despite being so profligate with our kicking. I enjoy watching again the renaissance of the enigmatic Jarrad Grant. The steady emergence of Jordan Roughead as a composed defender alongside the tireless warrior Dale Morris. Daniel Cross, brave, uncompromising, selflessly playing his role wherever it may be, doing his share, the ultimate team man.
My favourite bit, though, is some footage of our interchange bench late in the match. Murphy, Cooney and Griffen are sitting there, applauding their team-mates, urging on greater efforts. They look like star-struck, excitable first gamers, not seasoned veterans with nearly 600 games and their fair share of heartache between them. These three champs have been there for the miserable, bottom of the ladder times, the oh-so-close preliminary finals, the thrashings of last year, and the depressing grind that has been so much of this season. I'm so happy for them, that the rollercoaster ride to success may have just lurched upwards again, and that they've kept the faith.
Just like me, of course.
** Quick look at the fixture shows that our opponent next week is Adelaide, so this may have been a fool-hardy statement on my behalf.
About the Bulldog Tragician
The Tragician blog began in 2013 as a way of recording what it is like to barrack for a perennially unsuccessful team - the AFL team, the Western Bulldogs.